Four hundred and fifty years ago this week, a curiously clad, proud man speaking a peculiar language sailed through what is now the St. Augustine Inlet, with 800 people in tow, looking for a place to stay.
The inhabitants of the 1565 Village of Seloy, whom historians have come to call the Timicua, helped Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his entourage set up camp in present-day St. Augustine, even giving them their own buildings to live in.
The natives helped the newly-arrived Spaniards get acclimated with what would be their new home, teaching them to use palm branches in constructing housing and to fish the local waters, skills the Spanish had no chance of learning without Timicuan assistance. Nine months later, Menendez began ridding the area of its natives, unable to effectively convert them to Christianity or enslave them.
This week, as St. Augustine throws a birthday party, complete with fireworks and a cake to celebrate the Spanish founding of the city by Menendez, some indigenous groups feel significantly disrespected. Their story, they say, goes untold as their perpetrator is celebrated.
“They don’t need to celebrate these criminal people and what they have done to us. If you don’t have a connection to what they have done to us, it doesn’t mean anything to you, but it means something to us. It’s not right,” says Bobby C. Billie, a spiritual leader and member of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation of Aboriginal Peoples, an independent group that lives in rural South Florida, separate from the federally recognized and casino-rich Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Indigenous people and their supporters are expected to gather in St. Augustine September 4-8 to protest the 450th celebration.
“The whole event to me is so childish … and disrespectful of indigenous people, and of people that understand that Pedro Menendez was an evil man. To set him up as some kind of important person .... He was not. He was a murderer. He killed people. He enslaved people,” says Shannon Larson, indigenous rights activist and protest organizer.
City officials say the 450th is not about Menendez, and though they are sensitive toward what happened to the native peoples four-and-a-half centuries ago, this event is not necessarily about what happened before Founder’s Day, just as it’s not about the city’s importance in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, or Henry Flagler’s influence on the city.
The only event that centers around Menendez, officials say, is put on by the Cathedral Basilica Catholic Church, and the city isn’t technically involved.
As it does every year, the church will host a reenactment of Menendez’s landing at Mission Nombre de Dios, followed by a commemorative mass at its downtown cathedral. This year, those events will be bridged by a community parade down San Marco Avenue from the mission to the cathedral.
“It’s important to remember that this is a celebration of a European settlement. It’s a birthday party. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a history prior to that, but it’s not set up in that way,” says Mayor Nancy Shaver.
Shaver admits the exhibit, and the city, could be telling the story of the region’s first inhabitants better. She acknowledges that a casual everyday visitor wouldn’t see any reference to indigenous people, since there are no statues or plaques dedicated to their story in a city that is predominantly Spanish, and she says she wants to improve that.
The federally appointed St. Augustine 450th Commemoration Commission set goals in 2011 for what has been a four-year commemoration of the 1565 founding. They set out to “create engaging programs that will draw national and international visitors,” and tell the world about St. Augustine’s historic role in America and its multicultural roots.
Officials point to Tapestry: The Cultural Threads of First America exhibition in the city’s Visitor Information Center, as the educational hub of the commemoration.
The exhibit weaves a story of cooperation among Spanish, the African Americans who traveled with them, some of whom were free, and Native Americans. Panels illustrate a “First Thanksgiving,” and a peaceful village for all parties for nine months.
Dana Ste. Claire, director of the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration, wants to focus visitors’ attention on this cooperative story, which distinguishes Menendez’s settling of St. Augustine from the more immediately violent excursions of Hernando Desoto and Hernando Cortez.
But even Ste. Claire, who says he studied archeology and anthropology with a focus on Native American cultures, admits that after those first apparently blissful nine months, “political and philosophical differences” led to “some open genocide and infanticide” of indigenous peoples, something the exhibit touches on only briefly.
“In a short period of time, Indians were subjected to a variety of social and political pressures — they were forcibly converted to new religions, often cruelly treated, and in some circumstances used as slaves,” reads one panel, the only mention of active mistreatment of natives by the Spanish
in the exhibit.
Billie, however, is concerned with issues that run much deeper than how the city celebrates its founding.
For one, the still-active Doctrine of Discovery, first expressed by Pope Nicholas V
in 1452, and later adopted as law in the United States, ordered the “vanquish” of any “enemies of Christ,” including Native Americans, “to reduce such persons to perpetual slavery” and take away all their possessions and property. Despite recent apologies by Pope Francis, the doctrine has been used as legal precedent in the U.S. as recently as 2005 in the City of Sherrill, New York vs. Oneida Indian Nation.
For another, Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine’s fort, only briefly discusses its own role as an unjustified prison for indigenous people. Officials for the fort, under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, say they aim to tell the complete story, and are working to do better.
When Billie enters the fort, he says he feels the pain of spirits who suffered there. He says the federal government should tear the fort down to begin a healing process.
“Tell the truth. Stop lying to the kids,”
Billie, like many other indigenous peoples, believes he’s a caretaker of the Earth, with a responsibility to protect it. The killing of his ancestors represents a killing of the Earth.
He urges people to turn their attention to the ailing planet, and take action to begin the healing process.
“It’s almost too late already. You can see the roads are failing, and earthquakes and hurricanes have started happening. Nature is trying to tell us something. It’s up to you people to say, ‘Someday I’m going to have a kid, and I want them to have the same or better than I have it.’ That’s why we’re trying to bring attention to the people.”
“We have tried to work with [white people] for over 500 years and nothing has changed. It has come to a point that they have to realize who they are as human beings and to respect one another. Love one another,” he says.